Is Your Job Search Too Hot, Too Cold, or Just Right?

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Even though I’m not at the point where I’m ready to submit job applications, I’ve started at least looking at sites like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and biomedical workforce reports to get a feel for the kind of jobs that are out there. These job searches usually leave me feeling like Goldilocks in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (minus the breaking and entering). Sometimes I’ll find jobs that are like porridge that’s just too cold; having a Ph.D. is more than required and I’m worried I’ll be seen as overqualified for the position. Other times, the job description is like porridge that’s just too hot; the company wants applicants to have a Ph.D. plus 5 years of experience, and I’m left feeling wildly underqualified. I’m sure I’m not alone in my experience; I’ve talked with other graduate students who feel the same and if you plug “overqualified Ph.D.” into a Google search you’ll see just how common this fear is among young science trainees. This concern was also a topic of discussion at the University of Rochester’s BEST retreat a few weeks ago. Dr. Randall Ribaudo, co-founder of SciPhD and our keynote speaker for the event,  emphasized in his talk how our Ph.D. training has given us skills that companies value that we didn’t realize we had. While I don’t have the space to pass on all of the wisdom Dr. Ribaudo gave us, I would like to share a few things that he discussed that will hopefully help you as you are working towards landing that job that’s “just right”.

 While working in a lab may seem wildly different than working for a company, Dr. Ribaudo drew various parallels between the two and discussed how our experiences in research have given us skills that a business needs to be successful. In business there are two main goals: make a profit and continuously improve. While we’re not necessarily trying to make a profit while we’re in grad school, we are trying to put together products of value (publishable papers) that will keep the lab funded and help further our career. We also want to continuously improve; we want to learn more so we can design better experiments so we can publish more journal articles (ideally before our competition scoops us). You may not think of yourself as having much business experience, but the “business of research” has given you more than you think.

 While those two main goals I mentioned are pretty straightforward, there are many different pieces that go into successfully meeting them. For example, a business needs to be able to perform a risk assessment to decide if a project or investment is worth the potential cost. Well, what if I told you that if you’ve ever planned an experiment then you’ve performed a type of risk assessment? Whether you realize it or not, when you do an experiment you have consciously or subconsciously decided that the potential benefits of it outweigh the risk of wasting time and money on an experiment that doesn’t work. There’s always the chance that it won’t work, but as researchers, we will often take that risk because we’re convinced that the reward of success outweighs the risk of failure. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. For a second example, once a business has identified a project they want to pursue, they need to develop a team of people to get the job done. As grad students, most of us are required to put together a thesis committee comprised of people who are there to help guide us as we work on our projects. As we get further in our research careers, we may need to contact other labs for help with techniques outside of our expertise or we may write grants with other labs as collaborators. No graduate student is an island, and by the time we finish our thesis work many of us are well versed in how to get people together to help finish a particular experiment or even entire project.

 The first battle is identifying the skills we have that businesses want, but perhaps the more difficult battle is getting those businesses to recognize we have the necessary skills. As scientists, we’re first and foremost trained in our technical skills. We can pipette, blot, sequence, and culture with the best of them. The temptation is to make these skills the focus of our applications and interviews, but that won’t set us apart from other applicants when all of them can also pipette, blot, sequence, and culture as well as we can. Our technical skills are necessary and important, but it’s conveying that you have soft skills that will set you apart. When you’re applying or interviewing, you need to identify who you’re selling yourself to. It sounds silly and maybe even obvious, but understanding who it is you’re interviewing with will help you understand what they value, which will help you to know what skills to emphasize. For example, if you’re interviewing with human resources, they’re likely interested to know how you work with others, build collaborations, and deal with conflict. A director of finance may care less about those skills and more about your ability to assess the risk of certain ventures. To get an even better idea of how to sell yourself to someone, Dr. Ribaudo emphasized the importance of asking questions. As long as you don’t come off as being obnoxious or evasive, asking questions to get information can be huge for understanding the perspective of another, even during an interview.

 When I’m at the point where I’m ready to apply for jobs, there may be organizations that consider me over or underqualified. But when I take a step away from the lab bench and see all of the other skills my training as a Ph.D. student has given me, I’m confident that I’ll one day be able to find a job that’s “just right”. If you’re interested in learning more about how SciPhD can help you on your journey towards a non-academic career, check out for some useful tools.


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